Sunday, March 11, 2012

Chronicle - Movie Review

Chronicle is a superb film. That is the statement I wish to lead with.

It is also a study in powers for today’s generation. This has been billed as the comic book flick without a comic book and it is, and it’s good. The tale of three teens who gain superpowers is a taut inspection of what an origin story would really look like today. The acting is good, the script from Max Landis is tight and real, the direction from Josh Trank is equal parts abrasive and amazing, and the end result is a movie that deserves a rewatch. This is the definition of a sleeper hit and if you are on this site I’m pretty sure you will dig it. Hit the jump to see why Chronicle is this year’s best comic movie*.


Written by Max Landis
Directed by Josh Trank

The premise is three teens stumble upon a strange underground cave with crystals in it and soon after find themselves with telekinetic powers that will amaze and scare in equal measures. This premise is incredibly simple and yet the brilliant aspect is how these teens react and then the way everything breaks down flowing on afterwards.

Again, this movie is simple – and short at only 75 minutes of actual action time – but that is what holds it all together. This is a superpowered movie but it dispenses with the capes and the code names and the theatrics. This is grounded in a reality of response. What do these teens do with their newfound power to move objects with thought? They move cars in parking lots for giggles and they impress their peers to fit in. Then – and this is where the breaking down comes in – they enact revenge on bullies and place themselves in incredibly stupid and dangerous situations. This power doesn’t yield great responsibility for a single moment. This power is a means to get laid, hopefully, or mostly just have a laugh.

The bonding between the three leads – dorky Andrew, subversively confident Matt, and flat out awesome Steve – is extremely efficient and truthfully shown. These boys know it must be a secret and so they very quickly know they have to stick together so they will always have someone to share it all with. Like all teens, nothing holds any worth if it isn’t validated by someone else. This also ties into the ‘found footage’ conceit – though there is no statement that this footage is ever found. We simply see the movie through Andrew’s ‘POV’ as he totes around a camera with him at all times – and this in itself is a hint as to his character mindset, he’s an outsider, a loner, someone who does not connect. To be honest, the film could have lost this conceit easily and still packed most of the punch – and in the climactic finale it feels like this is forgotten in lieu of some slick editing and I didn’t mind one bit. The story ‘uses’ the reference cameras to great effect in some moments. Andrew takes opportunities to make the camera float around and above him. It’s a gorgeous use of cinematography as well as a clear example of his mastery of this power. Another time, an emotionally fuelled scene cuts to a soundless CCTV screen and this acts somewhat like a silent panel does in a comic. The words aren’t important, not specifically, it is the emotion in the room we must understand and this comes through loud and clear.

Much of the film is filled with these three lads using their powers to be teenage idiots. It is so gloriously easy to see this happening. Leaf blowers lift skirts and expose panties, a teddy bear jumps off a shelf unaided and terrorises a young girl. There are no notions of grand gestures. Not one crime is foiled. In fact, the only time the use of these powers escalate are for personal thrills or personal gains. Not a single magnanimous moment stems from this newfound power until it is too late.

Considering this is a superpowered movie, there are little superheroics on display. The heart of this flick is in the character arcs. Andrew spirals into what you could consider a supervillain origin. He certainly has the father issues most comics would require to collect powers and don some spandex or a domino mask. Watching Andrew react to the world around him is painful – mostly because it really isn’t his fault. You can’t expect a kid to do good when he rarely sees it and thus can forget what it actually looks like. Then there is his cousin, Matt, who is refreshingly not portrayed as being perfect. Matt is actually just a teenage kid. He’s not golden, he’s not a paragon for virtue, he’s just a kid getting by. He’s more popular than Andrew but he isn’t a jerk. He feels real.

Along for the ride with these guys is Steve, the quarterback and no doubt soon to be class president, and this guy isn’t a cliché at all either. Steve is a hell of a lot of fun, and he’s certainly the closest to a film-style ‘popular’ kid but he still feels real. There are no perfect kids in this movie – and that’s because a perfect teen is so rare to find. However, it’s not hard to find the terrible kind. Bullies and idiots abound – as in real life – and this backdrop forms a large part of the progression of these kids.

If you had powers, wouldn’t you want to start pulling teeth from bullies who made your life hell for years?

It would be a crime to spoil the end but suffice to say this is a movie looking to play with truths and nasty narrative arcs. Chronicle doesn’t feel interested in pandering to the endless second act structure of comics and as such is free to do whatever the hell it wants. This becomes ironic when we now know it’s been optioned for a sequel. Though, I could see a sequel working because it could simply follow a new group of teens right from the start. It could basically be a What If…? Style tale that holds the same baseline premise and then goes in another direction – and I think that could be fun, though it won’t capture the amazingly fresh quality this exudes so effortlessly and as such probably doesn’t actually need to happen.

The final half of Chronicle is one hell of a ride. It twists and turns and tumbles you upside-down. Things happen that you really don’t want to, and people change in plenty of ways. For a short movie, a hell of a lot is packed in.

Max Landis wrote this script and it’s clear he’s a young guy. He’s got an ear for dialogue that rings true and not in the sense that Tarantino wrote the way people speak. Tarantino wrote how really zany and funny people speak – Landis captures the tone of a true every man. These teens have their own voices and they pause and don’t always make sense. Yet, this doesn’t feel like awkward improvisation. This is just built right into the world of how teens do things.

Landis is the son of John Landis – the 80s mastermind behind An American Werewolf In London and The Blues Brothers. That familial fact has nothing to do with the movie but it will make you admire this sub-30 year old even more because his script is tight and his pedigree matches. If I ever found a writing bro-crush, and one fuelled by depressive envy, then this is it.

The directing from Josh Trank is exquisitely impressive at times. The opening minutes are jerky and difficult to maintain but the film soon finds its flow. This isn’t a shaky-cam the whole way through. But you must be prepared for a fair degree of motion. This is hand-held. With such a claustrophobic scope, Trank fits both the story and the performances very well onto the screen. Emotive scenes resonate and then when the action comes it is often beautiful. It is actually quite amazing to see the level of high class action Trank fits onto the screen because the film feels so lo-fi at the start. To suddenly have our leads flying through the clouds and the camera following is a true thrill. The camera is used well as it floats up to casually view the beatings below. Or the camera is stuck in the thick of things and we can’t see all of what’s happening but we are left to feel the effects. It’s akin to being on a rollercoaster ride in the dark where your perceptions are limited but the thrills are amplified.

This movie looks incredibly low budget and so when objects start lifting and floating and acting on their own it looks like a very neat trick. When a car is used amidst a showdown at the Space Needle, you know this flick is for real. These battles are authentic and this only adds to the flavour of the movie. The style is the substance, at times.

Verdict – Must See. In a world where high profile comic books are being made into mega-budget movies, this is a great step toward film acting like an independent comic. Obviously independent film has long existed, and independent comics have been made into films, but this film feels like its own independent comic. This is a big year for bombastic comic movies and so this one will definitely earn *the best independent comic movie not based on a comic award. If you dig comics, especially the good ones, then you really need to see Chronicle. It’s so damn good and it’s a tight little narrative all wrapped up. That’s something comics rarely give you so enjoy it here.

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Addison said...

agree absolutely, this is a fine piece of cinema!

Steve's character is awesome, he should totally get a spinoff

Anonymous said...

Can't say I want to see this because it really isn't about super-heroes. Yeah, I know that if most people had superpowers, they wouldn't be Superman. But I truly think I would. And seeing a film about people abusing powers instead of using them to help people sounds depressing. I'll stick with old school heroism.

Ivan said...

Great review, Ryan. I'll definitely check it out.

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